Last Thursday, attendees of the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting had the unique opportunity to “meet the USDOT leadership.” A panel of administrators and deputy administrators of DOT’s various sub-agencies presented their priorities and plans for the coming years. Speakers from the new leadership team included:
- Roy Kienitz, Under Secretary for Policy, Office of the Secretary of Transportation
- David Matsuda, Deputy Administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration
- Victor Mendez, Administrator, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
- Craig Middlebrook, Deputy Administrator, St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation
- Bob Rivkin, General Counsel, Office of the Secretary of Transportation
- Peter Rogoff, Administrator, Federal Transit Administration (FTA)
- David Strickland, Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
- Joe Szabo, Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)
The themes that echoed through this session were not too surprising. Officials emphasized the priorities of Secretary LaHood, including safety, infrastructure investment, economic competitiveness, livability and sustainability. They expressed a desire for a transportation bill reauthorization that reflects a renewed sense of strong federal leadership, and an interest in reorganizing the bill and reforming its associated processes to better achieve national goals.
Several challenges were stressed, the toughest being money. Though many officials alluded to the lack of funds as an underlying problem that must be addressed before anything else is tackled, none offered a solution at this time. Kienitz did allude to promoting a vision – whether it includes walkable neighborhoods, a new high speed rail system, or sleek updated highways – that Americans are willing to pay for (presumably he’s talking about user fees and tolling).
Another challenge is arriving at a common understanding of one of the Secretary’s most progressive priorities: livability. Officials joked about being confused about its meaning, as speakers have done throughout the week at TRB. It seems that DOT leadership and staff need to engage in some serious direction-setting when it comes to the livability initiative. Nevertheless, an awareness of the need to partner with entities outside of DOT to achieve broader goals seems to have seeped into the collective consciousness, as partnerships with other agencies, environmental groups, developers and others were mentioned by several officials.
As Secretary LaHood has done in recent appearances, officials touted the successes of the stimulus act. Mendez announced that FHWA had recently approved its 10,000th Recovery Act project, currently has 6,300 underway, and has committed 85% of the funding. Rogoff one-upped him by stating that FTA has obligated 89% of their funds. He discussed how the Recovery Act is testament to the administration’s commitment to public transit, as it increased the FTA’s budget 80% for the year (the only larger budget increase was at FRA). Rogoff also opined that insufficient attention has been paid to the transit service cuts avoided because of stimulus money, partially because these funds could be used to cover operating costs.
The word “safety” was repeated endlessly, in the context of highway fatalities, rail safety, pedestrian issues, drunk driving, seat belt use, underfunded and understaffed state oversight agencies, aging infrastructure and distracted driving, for which LaHood recently convened a summit. (Rogoff joked that if we really want to be safer, we should just use public transit.)
Upcoming activities to watch for include the publication of the final Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules in April, a collaboration between NHTSA and EPA; and decisions on where the $8 billion designated for high speed rail will be spent.